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Saturday, 3 June, 2000, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
Tug-of-war for Nagorno-Karabakh

By Robert Parsons in Nagorno-Karabakh

A west wind blew cool off the mountains of Iran, just visible to the east, and enveloped us in a cloud of dust. A bank of grey, tumescent cloud loomed to the north and, in the gorge beneath, the Agra river boiled turbid and brown. My driver sucked through his teeth: "It must be raining in Karabakh."

Karabakh, the Black Garden of Turkish and Persian dreams, a paradise on earth where the fruit is abundant and sweet, Karabakh, where the forests are thick with game and the mountains still cool in the pulsating heat of summer. A Turkish and Persian dream but populated by Armenians.

They have fought for Karabakh for centuries... a Christian island in a sea of Islam. Their churches cling to its rocky crags, their monasteries guard its valleys, their poets sing its praises. But, then, so do the poets of Muslim Azerbaijan. For them, too, Karabakh is sacred.

The territory has been the cause of generations of hatred
Of the thousands of Azeris who once lived there, though, not a soul is left. The Karabakhi Armenians have driven them out, every single one. Azerbaijan has paid the humiliating price of military defeat.

In three years of bitter warfare that cost 30,000 lives, the Armenians gained control not just of Karabakh but much of the rest of Azerbaijan as well. Six years on, hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees are unable to return to their homes. The Armenians want things to stay that way.

It's harsh but there is a stoniness in Armenian hearts that will not permit them to forget or to forgive. Patkavan Hovanessian is an old man who farms in the Karabakhi hills.

I asked him whether, in the interests of peace, it was not time to compromise with the Azeris and let them return to their homes. It was impossible, he said, after what the Turks, as he called them, had done in Karabakh and after so many Armenians had died fighting. No matter that Azeris died too and that Armenians also committed attrocities.

Theirs is an atavistic distrust born of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 and a history of massacre that stretches both beyond that and forward to the end of the 20th Century.

Over 30,000 people died during the conflict
In the borderlands between Armenia and Azerbaijan memories are still fresh. We drove up towards Goris, the last Armenian town before the start of the Lachin corridor, the narrow strip of Azerbaijan that until the war separated Armenia from Karabakh... up into the mist and rain.

The roofs of Goris glisten new and red in the drizzle. The old ones were destroyed by Azeri gun emplacements in the Lachin corridor. On the outskirts of town a warren of caves pockmarks the hillsides - shelter for the involuntary troglodytes of Goris.

Lachin is now in Armenian hands. It's bisected by what the people of Karabakh call the road of life - a 60km stretch of tarmac paid for by the Armenian diaspora - mostly in the United States. The road winds its way through a landscape of saturated green mountains and villages abandoned by their Azeri and Kurdish owners. The houses have been torched but Armenians look after the gardens and beehives.

While it is the Azeris who have suffered the humiliation of defeat, the Armenians are scarcely enjoying the fruits of victory

Follow the highway far enough and it takes you to Shusha, once one of the most famous rug-weaving towns in the Caucasus.

Today, like all Karabakhi settlements, it's run-down and weary, too care-worn, you might think, to resist the idea of reconciliation with Azerbaijan.

Karabakh: A mountainous region
Karabakh: A mountainous region
Archbishop Parkev of Karabakh put me straight on that. I asked him the same question I'd asked Patkavan on his farm. Wasn't it time for compromise?

He paused for an instant before replying. "Of course," he said, peering out from the black cowl of the Armenian Church.

So, just as simple as that. But what sort of compromise?

I asked the question. The archbishop's eyes looked at me with amusement. "We have already made our compromise. We no longer insist on integration with Armenia. We have declared independence instead."

"But," I persisted, "surely the Azeris won't be satisfied with that."

"That," he replied, "is their problem."

Low on trust

Rob Parsons in the deserted city of Agdam
Rob Parsons in the deserted city of Agdam
The way the archbishop tells it, everything boils down to trust - a commodity in perilously short supply. Travel down off the mountains around Shusha and you roll slowly out into the central plains of Azerbaijan.

Or at least you did. Now, you stumble into the wretched misery of Agdam, once a city of 50,000 and famed for its orchards. It's all but empty. Every single Azeri house in the town has been blown up to discourage return. During the war, the Azeris used Agdam as a base from which to shell Karabakh. The Armenians say they can't trust them not to do it again.

The unhappy truth is that both peoples are locked in poverty by mutual and ancient hatreds

Yet while it is the Azeris who have suffered the humiliation of defeat, the Armenians are scarcely enjoying the fruits of victory. I met Aramais by chance in the scrapheap that Agdam has become.

Fifty-years-old and grizzled with it, he gave up his job, because he wasn't being paid. Now he lives in a shed in Agdam with only a stray cat for company. There's no gas, no electricity and no running water. But he ekes out a living stripping metal from abandoned Azeri houses. He can gather a ton every two weeks - enough to make almost $200, well above the average wage.

The unhappy truth is that both peoples are locked in poverty by mutual and ancient hatreds. Distrust permeates and poisons their relationship. A cycle of vengeance and retribution shows little sign of breaking.

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22 Mar 00 | Europe
Karabakh leader wounded
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